Polaroids: Mapplethorpe
Block Museum of Art, Evanston, Ill.
Through April 5


Two decades after his death, Robert Mapplethorpe is no less famous—or infamous, said Lauren Weinberg in Time Out Chicago. In the late 1980s, exhibitions of “his lush black-and-white photographs of flowers, celebrities—and male nudes engaged in sadomasochism”—became flashpoints for partisan battles over federal funding for the arts. In 1972, however, Mapplethorpe was just another bohemian artist working in Manhattan. He began taking instant photographs of friends and fellow artists, intending to incorporate the images into collages. “Soon, however, he became more interested in the photos themselves.” These improvisatory, experimental, and “rarely seen” Polaroid images show a young photographer establishing the themes that his mature work would explore. Nudes and still lifes hang beside more recognizable faces, such as Patti Smith, David Hockney, and Marianne Faithfull.
These casually knocked-off photographs “may surprise viewers who are more familiar with his posed and polished studio photography of the ’80s,” said Karen Rosenberg in The New York Times. The photographs of Patti Smith, in particular—who was for a time Mapplethorpe’s roommate—have a disarmingly casual charm. “The Polaroid technology was inherently collaborative, in that models could see and respond to the results of the photo session.” At the time, Polaroids also ­carried the slightly “seamy” connotation of do-it-yourself pornography. Mapplethorpe embraced this in “frankly autoerotic” self-portraits, as well as in racy snapshots of his lover juxtaposed with public statues, which signal the development of Mapplethorpe’s “cold, flesh-as-marble sensibility.” In 1975, the photographer set his Polaroid down for good. In 2008, the company discontinued its trademark product and declared bankruptcy. It turns out that “the beloved instant photograph could not have hoped for a better sendoff.”